Inside a Massive, Illicit Peyote Ceremony During Mexico's COVID Lockdown
Photograph ©Tracy Barnett
Vice World News
The indigenous shaman believed that coronavirus is no match for the power of peyote.
TEOTIHUACÁN, Mexico — On December 18, Mexico City and neighboring Mexico State entered a weeks-long coronavirus lockdown for the first time since the spring. The next evening, I hid in a sleeping bag surrounded by people vomiting in a small park near the famed Teotihuacán pyramids outside the capital, as dozens consumed the psychedelic peyote cactus at a clandestine ceremony.
The revelers arrived along with a mara'akame, or shaman, from the indigenous Huichol people, or Wixárika in their language. The Huichol, primarily based in the western Sierra Madre mountains of central Mexico, are one of the principal guardians of traditional peyote culture.
At least 75 people showed up for the nighttime ritual, seemingly fearless despite the fact that Mexico ranked fourth globally with 125,807 coronavirus fatalities by the end of 2020. Even that grim figure is believed to be heavily undercounted. Although the government instituted lockdowns that closed non-essential activities until at least January 10 and warned citizens that cases were spiking, for those in attendance, peyote was apparently essential.
Due to the potentially punishable blatant disregard of government lockdown restrictions, the mara'akame allowed VICE World News access to cover his final ceremony of 2020 under certain restrictions. He, his son, and his followers would be anonymous, and I agreed not to conduct interviews or take photos during the ceremony. In fact, photos and video are always explicitly banned to anyone in attendance and while people disregarded covid protocols like mask-wearing and social distancing, they adhered to the no phone or camera policy.
For the past decade, the mara'akame - a stout man in his late-50s - has led nighttime peyote rituals for outsiders around Mexico, and during the pandemic, he and his son continued to host at least 10 ceremonies, from just outside Teotihuacán's pyramids to a border city a few miles from the United States.
While I didn't attend, I approached the family to do an interview in person in September, then followed up once briefly in early-December to ask about covering the ceremony, always wearing a mask. All quotes unless explicitly stated are from these two meetings with the mara'akame, who speaks limited Spanish and often asked his son in Wixárika to explain certain concepts in Spanish, and phone calls with the mara'akame's son.
"I'm going to tell you one very important thing, you're never going to understand this, because we, the Huichols, don't fully understand it. To be that, which belongs to this land. To be that, which belongs to this culture," explained the mara'akame's son. "You have to realize, we're talking about two worlds, the real world and the spiritual world."
The historically reclusive people believe that their ceremonies directly maintain an equilibrium between the forces of nature.
"The Huichols are the world's equilibrium," claimed the mara'akame’s son. "The mines are what have destabilized the world."
The coronavirus is only the latest repercussion of the continuing mining of Earth, according to the mara'akame and his son, along with a seeming increase of natural disasters in the 20th century that began with a more than decade long, ongoing legal struggle with a Canadian mining company over drilling rights to one of the Huichols most sacred regions.
The mara'akame’s family claimed that peyote could protect them from coronavirus, and in fact, had helped the Huichols with other illnesses in the past, specifically, the smallpox epidemic.
"We don't use medicine, the pills, that’s your work, your thing, it's all good, but for us here, (Western) medicine, it doesn't suit me," said the mara'akame.
The son claimed that peyote had a special power.
"It makes one realize how to open the mind, when you open the mind, well, it's very powerful. You must realize, it's capable of covering your entire body with energy," said his son. "You can protect yourself with your own mind."
When I arrived at the December event, I picked a spot around 15 feet behind the circle next to a small tree alone in the field. As the sun set, car after car showed up filled with mostly maskless people who unpacked their mats, blankets and sleeping bags; whatever they planned to use to deal with the winter night.
December is one of Mexico's coldest months and when influenza season normally hits high gear. For months, experts had anticipated a large uptick in the country's coronavirus cases at the end of 2020, mostly due to a series of holidays like September's Independence Day and October's Day of the Dead that culminated in a month filled with family obligations. Mexico had already been hit hard after lax coronavirus restrictions, a lack of testing and contact tracing, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s continuous downplaying of mask use. Out of fear of further affecting the economy, the Mexican government had been reticent to take stricter measures until December, when it was clear that coronavirus was out of control.
As the pandemic raged, I’d wondered for months how the mara'akame and his son would conduct such a large yet intimate ceremony.
Two fire pits were prepared in an open space surrounded by people. I took solace in my assumption that the two fires were an effort to get people to spread out a little more. But when I asked the mara'akame's son why there were two, he answered, "we're expecting a lot of people."
Around 9:30pm, a man asked me to move in from the tree. When I expressed concern about coronavirus, he maintained that I should move closer because "it's an intense ceremony."
I scooted in about half the distance, eight feet or so from the circle in front. Quickly, another woman came and again urged me in closer.
"The environment of the mara'akame will protect us," she said calmly. I declined.
The mara'akame and his family came from one of the most important towns in Tee’kata, an area in northern Jalisco state that is considered the center of the Huichol heartland, and even served a spell as the traditional governor of the town, working for the betterment of the community and solving disputes. But over the past decade he's dedicated himself to bringing Huichol culture and ceremony to others around Mexico.
The ceremonies began small in the nearby hills with a core group of “mestizos,” in this context a word used to refer to Mexicans of mixed heritage often used by different indigenous groups when speaking Spanish. People learned of the clandestine gatherings mostly by word of mouth, and those who attend are overwhelmingly Mexican.
The interest of outsiders in Huichol culture was important because "as it is, the culture isn't being preserved," said the mara'akame. "I believe that we're going to lose it in the next 10 or 15 years."
The mara’akame and his son lamented the loss of traditional culture in the communities as youths are more interested in screen time than learning their traditional practices. He believed it was important that non-Huichol Mexicans learn the tradition because "for us, as Huichols, the culture is originally from (Mexico), it's from Mexicans."
They expressed particular concern about one of their most sacred sites in the deserts of San Luis Potosi, known as Wirikuta, which they believe to be the origin of the world. For generations, Huichols made the roughly 250 mile pilgrimage yearly to collect peyote in Wirikuta, and is now where the controversial First Majestic Silver mining project has been under debate since 2009. San Luis Potosi also has seen a booming industry of peyote tourism promoted by both questionable mara'akame's and non-Huichol peyote enthusiasts, while others have allegedly worked to sell it outside of Mexico.
"People always sell. To the mine. They sell the medicine. It doesn't sit well with me, they can't do this. They're not thinking about us," said the mara'akame.
While the family does charge money for the ceremonies, they claim to take earnings back to their village to support the community because of a lack of employment and opportunity. While it’s impossible to verify that claim, I’ve visited the small, nearly furnitureless three room apartment that the family shares when not in the Sierra and they appear to live very modestly.
Just before the event began, the mara'akame and his son asked everyone to come close together and gave a talk about the importance of ceremony as people huddled around the Tatewari, or the grandfather fire.
I lingered outside the circle, along with a few others with masks, struggling to hear the speakers over the sounds of others quietly talking and coughing amongst themselves in the now large group. When one person failed to hold in a sneeze, another young man made a joke about not feeling embarrassed. Here, "you can let it all out," he laughed. Unamused, I backed further away.
As each person who spoke finished, a common refrain echoed from the group — "aho", a word common among many indigenous languages in North America with a wide variety of usages like hello and okay, however, often used within ceremony in a similar manner as I agree, or amen.
One by one, people passed the mara'akame for a blessing, spreading his energy to supposedly protect those in attendance, and only then did I notice he was wearing a mask.
I'd tried to maintain a distance during the fireside opening rituals and I hadn't been able to see him through the crowd. By that time, I counted about 75 people as he blessed person after person after person. Surprisingly, at least to me, very few in attendance wore masks even though the surrounding area was one of the first parts of Mexico to return in December to semaforo rojo, or red on the stoplight system. They didn't seem to care, this was semaforo aho.
Around midnight, the mara'akame's son walked around passing out grounded peyote in large scoops into each. I noticed that as the peyote arrived, the clouds above literally separated allowing for more stars to appear in the still light polluted sky as the son blessed the fires one final time.
Each person poured water in their cups, mixed it, then began taking sips. The dusty peyote doesn't fully dissolve with liquid, and each swig tasted like swallowing sand after a wipe out at the beach. It took multiple fillings of water until I was able to get all the peyote down my throat. If peyote would really protect me from the virus, I wanted to make sure I consumed it all.
As people waited for the peyote to kick in, occasional giggles, whispers, coughs and sneezes filled the air. A few members of the group began quietly playing with percussion instruments with the occasional beating of a drum or the swoosh of a shaker. Shadows around the fire twisted in positions of meditation or yoga poses, while others slunk further into their blankets and sleeping bags.
Intermittent yelps or screams came from the group and as the music began escalating, I found myself speculating on whether I was going to vomit, or who would vomit first. I didn't feel nauseous yet, but I knew it was coming.
Soon after, loud heaving sounds burst from the shadows. I quickly realized that when the man had warned me about moving in closer for the intensity of the ceremony, it was also because he knew I was in the puking field.
About nine feet to my right and another nine feet to my left, two people upchucked loudly. I wondered, if coughing with coronavirus needed a safe distance of at least six feet, how far was safe for uncontrollable peyote purges?
Around 1am, the music stopped, and the mara'akame began to sing. The acapella Wixárika hymns of the mara'akame's are often when many people's most profound moments arise during the ceremony. His style of singing jutted into the night, with the sentences fading away like an echo, each word a skipping stone of sorts in a backwards crescendo.
Becoming a mara'akame in Huichol culture is a lifelong pursuit based around an understanding of their sacred traditions. The mara'akame's father was also a mara'akame, and his own journey began when he first tried peyote at around 10 years old. His son, now in his late-20s, hoped to follow the familial lineage and like his father and grandfather, become one of the most well respected mara'akame's in his community too.
"I dream of being a mara'akame, but a very wise mara'akame. Right now there's a lot of [them] with very little knowledge," said the son.
"Before the mara'akame's could transform, they were nagual," he said, referring to humans that can shapeshift into animals. "But now they lack the knowledge of the spiritual world." He then claimed that his 99-year-old grandfather had reached such an advanced state that he's a nagual, and can still turn into a lion.
A few moments after the mara'akame stopped singing, the group broke into loud songs to percussion music. A furor began among the gatherers as many people started moving towards the fire, dancing, and joining in on the singing. Eventually, the songs faded away into a melody from a xaweri, a traditional instrument similar to a violin, that traversed high pitched and often jarring chord combinations to create an otherworldly cadence, while the group huddled together and stamped their feet in unison, a ritual meant to deliver messages to the Earth.
I watched from afar, cowering in my sleeping bag, wearing my mask and glasses. Hardly anyone wore masks, and the few who did stood further back from the group, but several were now by the fire too.
I'd promised the mara'akame that I wouldn't interview people during the ceremony, but the closeness of the group made coronavirus seem ever-present as at least 50 people stood huddled around the two fires at numerous times throughout the night. As the peyote kicked in, I thought about my otherness, distant from the community engaged completely with the sacred medicine, seemingly one of the few unsure of the plant’s powers to ward off COVID.
I recoiled into my sleeping bag, which even without coronavirus, is not uncommon for someone to do at a ceremony in the sometimes deeply personal experience. Traditionally, no one would disturb them. I adopted this as my plan for the evening.
At around 4am, the mara'akame sang his final songs and his aides began cleansing people with sage. A woman began sobbing, her head in her hands crying for several minutes. When his songs ended, the mara'akame allowed those who wanted to join the fire and close the ceremony, still wearing his mask.
After the ceremony was over, they announced that they’d leave the fires burning. At that moment the clouds returned and dimmed the stars greatly, which as the peyote trailed off, amazed me. A man went far off in the distance and wailed mournfully loudly for several minutes as someone shook a shaker quietly in solidarity.
Many people huddled around the fires as the sun slowly rose. I tried to see how many masks remained, and there were very few scattered throughout.
The entire night had been a combination of awe and horror. I'd never been so sure that I'd been in a superspreader event, let alone under the influence of peyote. Once the sun rose, I quietly left without talking to anybody, fearing that I'd been infected.
Days later, the mara'akame and his son returned to their mountain community. I'd asked them previously if they were concerned about bringing coronavirus back to their isolated towns, but they said no, because of the Huichols’ special position within the "cosmology".
"The Huichols in the Sierra made a shield, a blockade of the disease, so that the coronavirus cannot enter there," said the son. "It’s a transparent shield that truthfully we can't see...That's how we manage it and block it there. Outside of there, a lot of people are dying, and that makes me sad."
Over the following weeks, numerous other states in Mexico entered varying levels of coronavirus lockdown as cases continued to spike. On January 9, Mexico reported 16,105 new confirmed coronavirus cases, it’s highest number since the pandemic began. Mexico City and Mexico State announced the indefinite extension of lockdown measures beyond the original January 10 date.
I went into two weeks of self-isolation following the peyote gathering out of concern that I may have contracted the virus, but in the weeks that followed I experienced no symptoms. The mara'akame’s son told me weeks later that there were still no coronavirus cases in his region and that the invisible blockade continued to protect the community. One of the principal aides also claimed he's heard of no one catching coronavirus from the December ceremony, or any of the previous throughout the year.
With the lack of contact tracing and testing in Mexico, I’ll probably never know whether or not the ceremony was a superspreader event. But for those that believe in the power of peyote, they don’t seem to care. They’re already preparing for their first ceremony of 2021, regardless of the continuing lockdown.